Human rights, and democratic values should converge in practical policy


Justice Syed Bashir-ud-Din, chairman J&K State Human Rights Commission, and Javed Kowsa, member of the Commission, in their joint report have directed the government to make a final enquiry into the Kunan Poshpura incident. They have also recommended that legal action should be taken against the Director Prosecution who had advised the government to close the case after paying Rs. Two lakhs as compensation to each alleged raped woman.

According to records, during the intervening night of 23rd and 24th February 1991 armed forces personnel committed mass rape on 31 women. Kashmir Valley was shut down for several days in protest against this barbaric incident.
Later, in a house to house survey Shabnam Qayum, Editor Qaumi Waqar, asserted that the number of rape victims was 51. His report was published in the form of a book entitled “Kashmir Outraged” and was widely circuited (including to the American Congress).

The State Human Rights Commission and the State government depended on the recommendation of the two members of the Press Council of India, BG Verghese and Vikram Rao, to whom the inquiry was entrusted. They had, in their report, exonerated the suspected personnel of the armed forces.

I rushed to Kunan Poshpura to verify the facts and at a press conference in Delhi exposed the findings of the report of representatives of the Press Council. My press release was published by the Illustrated Weekly of India as an article. Since the members of the Press Council and Editor of the Illustrated Weekly, the eminent writer Khushwant Singh, were my friends, it added to my embarrassment. But I stand by facts as I witnessed them.

It may be recalled that the Press Council had entrusted this enquiry to the Verghese Committee mainly on the role of media in or about Kashmir, on receiving a request from the army headquarters. There was nothing in the report to justify the campaign of militant nationalists to condemn the Human Rights bodies in the country.

Also, the Press Council panel made no claim that the security forces had committed no excesses. While there is room for differences between the panel and others—media persons and Human Rights activists—over judgments on specific incidents, there was no difference on the fact that excesses were committed. The report of the panel devoted maximum attention and space to the infamous case of alleged rapes of Kunan Poshpura. It completely exonerated the army of all the charges made against its jawans in this case.

The verdict on one case does not imply that all the complaints against the army and other security forces are fake. Verghese Committee referred to complaints against the other security forces only in passing as they were beyond its purview. One, in fact, wished that the government invited this very committee or any other nominated by the Press Council to study the role of other para-military forces, because they come in day-to-day contact with the civil population, while the army is mainly deployed to guard the frontiers. Second, these forces are not as rigorously trained as the army is.

The media had picked up the news about Kunan Poshpura incidents from the FIR lodged with the police by the District Magistrate in which he reportedly stated, ‘I felt ashamed to put in black and white the kind of atrocities and their magnitude brought to my notice on the spot.’ ‘The armed forces behaved like violent beasts,’ he added. The government spokesman immediately described the allegation as planted (by a government officer?).

After the visit of the Divisional Commissioner to the spot, the official spokesman reiterated that the allegation was found baseless. But the Divisional Commissioner denied having conducted any enquiry and told the press that it was a serious matter which required “a high-level enquiry”. Without specifically referring to the incident, the then Union Home Minister admitted during those days that “some shameful incidents” took place involving excesses by the security forces. A former Chief Justice of the State High Court, after conducting a non-official enquiry, confirmed the allegations.

Can anybody deny that the above facts made out a prima facie case for demanding a fair enquiry? This is what media commentators and some political and Human Rights activists demanded. If they had not done so, they would not have been worth their salt.

A Brigadier of the army did conduct an enquiry into allegations against his men. But under the Indian Army Act, his report could not be made public. The state government entrusted the enquiry to an Assistant Superintendent of Police, who never completed the enquiry.

Verghese Committee, in its report, pointed out a number of discrepancies in the statements of the alleged victims of the incident, statements of the government officers, including the district magistrate and the chief medical officer. It came to a firm conclusion that the ‘Kunan rape story stands totally unproven and completely untrue.’

If the conclusion was correct, the conduct of the government in avoiding a credible enquiry which could have vindicated the honour of the army becomes all the more indefensible. Who served the national interest better: those who demanded an enquiry or those who described the demand as anti-national and thus allowed the country to be defamed all over the world?

Enquiries by an army officer or a police officer in such cases lack credibility. But why even their reports have not been made public so far? Perhaps, the members of the committee would concede that their report, too, is no substitute for a proper and formal enquiry.

The next incident that the committee examined happened at Pazipora, where 25 persons were allegedly killed and a number of women raped by the army. In this case, too, the police registered a case. The doctor in the Kupwara District Hospital corroborated that the five women brought to her from Pazipora “were all definitely victims of rape.”

The committee did not visit Pazipora for want of time and did not examine the victims, their relatives or those who had made allegations. But it has pointed out discrepancies in the following versions of the incident on the basis of the information it collected from official sources. One, by Justice Farooqi; two, as reported in India Week, by N.V Subramanian and Brij Raj Singh (who certify six cases of rape); and three, by Sukhmani Singh, whose report was published by the Weekly; and four, by the Asia Watch (the US-based Human Rights group).

The committee reported that a court of enquiry was instituted by the local army authorities which found that the reports of excesses to be false. Does an enquiry by the local army authorities against its own jawans, the level of which is not known and the report of which was not released to the press, carry any conviction? As the Verghese Committee has not conducted even a semblance of an enquiry, its verdict, too, carries no better conviction than the four versions it has rejected.

It challenges the veracity of the charge of killings on the ground that post-mortem was not conducted on 13 bodies. Whose lapse was it? Even if only 12 persons had been killed, were they innocent or militants?

One silly argument used by the committee to belittle the allegations of rape is that ‘one of the unwed girls, who were allegedly raped, reportedly got married some months later to nobody’s shame.’ Is it shameful to marry a raped girl?
In view of the seriousness of the allegations, supported by four prestigious non-official enquiries, absence of any public enquiry by the government or the Verghese Committee can only be regretted.

Referring to another incident of the army firing at Zakura on August 1, 1990, which according to press reports took a toll of 22 lives, the committee admitted that it had no direct knowledge and was unable to comment on it. But it quotes the army version without getting it checked from any non-official source.

The facts, confirmed by official sources, are as follows. A big procession was passing through the Zakura crossing near Hazratbal. It moved at right angle to the left. Five army vehicles came from the right hand side of the crossing. The policemen on duty at the crossing asked the army vehicles to stop (as per the FIR report) till the procession passed.

But they went ahead. Three of the vehicles were given the passage by the processionists. But the fourth was stuck and delayed in a scuffle. The army version is that ‘it was stoned, anti-India slogans were shouted and efforts were made to snatch weapons from the jawans. Thereupon, the troops fired in self-defence.

Three vehicles were ahead of the procession. The jawans in them started firing to rescue those who they feared were trapped in the rear. The firing from both sides, therefore, took a heavy toll of human life.’

Whatever be the official version of the incident, it was never alleged that the processionists were armed. Why should unarmed processionists try to provoke the armed Jawans by stoning them or snatching a rifle from one of them? It appears that the army men were provoked by anti-India slogans. As such slogans have often been cited as a provocation for firing by the security forces, the issue must be settled at the highest level, that is, political, whether non-violent and non-terrorists ex-pressions of anti-India feelings deserve nothing short of death by a firing squad. In any case, wasn’t the Zakura incident a fit case for a public and impartial enquiry?

The Committee quoted a few cases in which the guilt of the army men was established and they were punished. These cases include unauthorized and arbitrary detention of BBC correspondent Yusuf Jameel, rape of a Canadian woman in Srinagar, another of a woman in Awantipur and killing of six persons near Pakherpura. In addition, the report quoted early incidents involving para-military forces in which action was taken. It also included the Anantnag bridal rape case (May 1990) and the burning down of shops and houses in Handwara (October 1990). In other cases, the Committee simply quoted the army version without conducting its own enquiry or giving its comments.

Be that as it may be, the SHRC directive to the government to make a final inquiry into the Kunan Poshpura incident after nineteen years should serve as a reminder to us that justice delayed is justice denied. And that ex-pressions like national interest, Human Rights, and democratic values should converge in practical policy.
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